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Support, soften, humanize: the various roles and strategies behind presidential candidates’ spouses

Jill Biden, wife of former vice president and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
Jill Biden, wife of former vice president and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
Tsering Bista/NPR

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On Monday, Jill Biden published her new book and started doing the interview rounds, discussing her life with former vice president and now 2020 presidential candidate Joe Biden.

For a candidate who’s recently faced backlash from women for his interpersonal style and treatment of Anita Hill, Jill Biden’s memoir is likely a strategic move.

And she’s not the first 2020 political spouse to hit the campaign trail. Chasten Buttigieg, Pete Buttigieg’s husband, has had a steady and rising presence on social media. As a gay man, he is in some ways unprecedented. But in other ways, some say that Chasten has been playing the more “traditional” political spouse role -- putting his career on hold to campaign for his husband, humanizing him and acting as a behind-the-scenes voice.

Meanwhile, there’s also an unprecedented number of male spouses, which also raises questions about what the public wants from the spouse of a female presidential candidate. How should the campaigns of presidential candidates such as Senator Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris utilize their spouses to their best benefit?

Historically, what has been the role of the presidential spouse on the campaign trail? What kind of spouse has been the most effective? How does gender and sexuality affect these dynamics?


Emily Heil, reporter for the Washington Post, who covers the first lady and has been watching spouses on the campaign trail; she tweets @emilyaheil

Lauren Wright, lecturer in politics and public affairs at Princeton University; author of “On Behalf of the President: Presidential Spouses and White House Communications Strategy Today” (Praeger, 2016); her forthcoming book is “Star Power: American Democracy in the Age of the Celebrity Candidate” (Routledge, 2019)

Tammy Vigil, associate professor of communication at Boston University; author of “Moms in Chief: The Rhetoric of Republican Motherhood and the Spouses of Presidential Nominees” (University Press of Kansas, 2019)